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Children With Disabilities Take to Slopes

Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the Guardian, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, February 6, 2006.

Ski Day at Park Gives Youngsters Opportunity to Learn Snowboarding and Skiing, Something Volunteers and Parents Say Gives Them the Self-Confidence that They Can Do Anything

Shaky at first, nine-year-old Sonia Walker slowly stood up on her snowboard.

"I want to show you how I can," she said, moments before she strapped her feet in and headed down Brookvale Ski Hill.

It's her first time snowboarding, and enthusiastically said: "Yes!" when asked if she was having fun.

She looked upward, blinked a few times, and took off.

There's one thing that separates Walker from most nine-year-olds--she's visually impaired.

"Sonia's doing great," said Joanne Hodgins, a teacher with Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority (APSEA).

"She's a real trouper. She likes to try anything new, once she feels safe and knows what's going on."

Walker is one of nearly 20 impaired students from across P.E.I. who went to Brookvale recently to learn how to ski and snowboard.

The event was coordinated by APSEA and the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing (CADS). The day was paid for by the APSEA trust fund, $275 in total for the students, parents, volunteers and supervisors.

Bernard LaBelle, a volunteer with CADS since its start in P.E.I. six years ago, said people with vision are afraid to ski, but the visually impaired children he works with don't share the same fear.

"Look at these kids," LaBelle said. "If there was anybody to be afraid, it would be them, but no, they come and they do it."

LaBelle got involved with CADS because he wanted to see children with disabilities get included more, he said.

"Disabled kids would come here (Brookvale), they would sit them in the lodge upstairs in the windows and they would just look at the other kids have fun."

But it's not about him, he said, it's for the kids.

"For (the children), it's very often a dream. You can imagine, they've never skied in their life and they would never have thought that they would be able to."

Society in general benefits when volunteering, it's done for everybody, he said.

And it gives the children self-confidence, and when they grow up they realize they can do anything, LaBelle added.

"If all throughout their childhood they don't do anything, they tend to think, 'OK, we can't do anything', and it's not the case. It's (about) opportunity and possibility."

Jennifer Shields, a supervisor with APSEA P.E.I., said it's a "real treat" to be a teacher working with visually impaired students, and getting to watch them grow.

As soon as a child is identified with a visual impairment, a teacher like Shields works with them until they're in high school, she said.

"Many of these children, I've known them since they were babies and we follow them all through school."

Her job is to assist classroom teachers and provide adaptive material, large print and braille, among other teaching tools, so her students can go through school smoothly, Shields explained.

The ski day at Brookvale was another way to teach the kids they're capable, she added. It takes a lot of organization to bring disabled children from public schools across the Island to Brookvale, she said.

Parents helped transporting kids and educational assistants helped supervise the students while on the hill, explained Shields.

"It's a very satisfying experience in every sense, when our students do well in school and also when they do well in an experience like this."

John McConnell, director of APSEA in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who's been involved with the organization for nearly 28 years, agreed, saying he's always enjoyed working with disabled children.

He's also a snowboard instructor on the weekends.

"This is great," McConnell said.

"These kids don't get a lot of opportunity to get out and this is a good life-long (recreational) skill to develop. They don't always get that opportunity in classes so we like to provide it with the group here today."

The goal for the day is simple, he said.

"Have fun is the main goal, and then learn a few skills."

The day's purpose was agreed upon by all participants.

Helen Smith-MacPhail, a parent of son Nicholas, who has a disability, said it's important for everyone to know disabled children enjoy the same things as everyone else.

"Kids with disabilities, they're no different than any other kids, and they just want to get out and have a good time."

The disabled ski program is "wonderful" at Brookvale and her and Nicholas go skiing on a regular basis, she said.

The program makes it easy for her husband and kids to ski as a family, added Smith-MacPhail.

"For us, it's something that we can do as a real family. Nicholas is a wheelchair user so there's not many activities that he can participate in at the same level as the rest of the family, and as an able-bodied child," she explained.

The Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority is an excellent organization and knows the importance of getting families of children with disabilities together, she said.

The organization is funded by Rotary clubs, Easter Seals and Ronald McDonald charities that pay for equipment like bi-skis, which are ridden by wheelchair users to enjoy the thrills of skiing and cost close to $4,000 a piece.

LaBelle said the bi-skis are worth every penny.

"They're expensive but they're extremely useful, because without the equipment they wouldn't be skiing."

Sponsors, teachers and volunteers help whenever they can so impaired students can participate independently in any activity when they get older, LaBelle said.

Meanwhile, Sonia Walker took a little tumble on her way down the hill.

Walker's teacher, Hodgins, encouraged her to try again.

"I fell and I think my arm got twisted," she said, wiping tears from her eyes, but the tears quickly dried as her excitement grew to get back up and try again.

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